As the COVID-19 pandemic extends into April, the conditions for working class people in Canada continue to deteriorate. Federal and provincial governments continue to prioritize business interests over workers’ lives despite the exponential growth of confirmed cases in Canada, now more than 11,000 infections and over 130 deaths.
In several provinces orders have been sent out for all non-essential businesses to shut down in order to help aid social distancing recommendations. But this has proven to be only a smokescreen to create an illusion that something is being done to curb the viral transmission. In the case of Ontario, once the list of what constituted an essential workplace was released, it was clear that the list was far too large and vague to effectively contain the spread of the virus. It was clear that all measures were in favour of business interests and would continue to expose workers to the virus.
To ensure their profits, businesses across Canada have been finding loopholes in the already patchy government restrictions to force people to work in dangerous conditions. This prompted us at Labour Fightback to launch a “Name and Shame” campaign to expose those bosses putting profits ahead of workers’ lives. We publish below some of the responses that our editorial team received thus far. Submissions have been edited for clarity.
Continue to send in your stories by email to email@example.com and we will keep your identity anonymous to protect you. Below, we summarize reports we received from workers across the country. We anonymously posted them in full on our Labour Fightback Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/SocialistFightback/
The inability of the government to enforce the restrictions it mandated has led some businesses to unilaterally decide that they were “essential”. This includes employers in the construction industry, health care, service and other sectors.
PetSmart management forced their employees, including the dog groomers, to work in small, closed rooms. One employee who wrote to us said it was impossible to engage in “even basic social distancing measures”. The PetSmart worker further pointed out that “management personally contacted workers who tried to organize online to accuse them of violating their social medical policy and intimidated them into silence.” Eventually, by March 20, PetSmart decided to close their grooming salons but not their stores. They effectively told their groomers to either go home without pay or work as sales associates instead.
Due to the vague language of what constitutes an essential workplace, IKEA is able to keep its doors open for pickups and deliveries. Despite limiting their offered services and “social distancing” measures, workers’ lives are still being sacrificed for the sake of profit. As one IKEA worker put it:
“…the lives of the people who are most at risk are still being put at stake for the sake of corporate profits, all this while the government of Canada and Quebec announce subsidies and tax breaks for corporations to deal with the epidemic. [IKEA Canada President] Mike Ward needs to step down and IKEA should be completely closed because it is a non-essential service, and all workers need to be compensated while they are staying home to prevent the spread of the virus. Anything short of this will prove detrimental to workers and maybe to the entire corporation and its brand name”
Prior to finally closing their doors, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada ownership and upper management forced employees to work during the pandemic, based on the fact that the aquarium is one of the most popular attractions in Canada. The ownership only saw dollar signs as one of its peak times, March break, was approaching. The upper management, in order to boost enrollment during a pandemic, had the nerve to provide a 15 per cent discount for the children’s camp. One of their employees wrote in to us:
“The CEO of the aquarium even bragged to his workers how it was going to stay open no matter what anyone said. However, their stubbornness began to draw attention, and the media interviewed the CEO on two occasions asking about it. His response was simply that we were staying clean and put in measures to ensure safety. The measures were minimal at best, installing a few more hand sanitizer dispensers around the building, putting up posters instructing staff how to properly wash their hands, and using ozone water to disinfect areas of the building slightly more.”
At no point did the ownership consider the opinion of the staff and lower management who called for a closure due to safety hazards to both customers and the staff. Instead, the bosses told some staff not to wear gloves or masks, so as not to scare people. The eventual closing of Ripley’s Aquarium was thanks to the staff and the enormous public pressure and outrage that ensued. Hundreds of angry social media posts, emails and reviews circulated expressing anger at the ownership for their lack of action. At one point even a petition was circulated calling on closures. Although there were early attempts to ignore the public outrage,, in the end, due to the falling profits, countless cancelations, public outrage and the rumblings of an employee walkout, management was forced to close the aquarium. This shows that if there is a flattening of the curve at any point, it is not because of the prime minister, the premiers or the bosses. It is because of the voluntary sacrifice and action of the working class.
The vague language utilized to describe essential workplaces by the provinces allows nearly all construction sites to remain open, including new sold-out condominium construction. There have been several reports of general contracting companies not taking necessary precautions during this pandemic. One communications worker who wanted to remain anonymous said that only half-measures were taken to address the situation at a construction site. These included a safety meeting in a small crowded room where social distancing was impossible, ironically making the safety meeting itself unsafe.
Another report comes from an employee of Ozz Electric unionized with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). These workers worked on a construction site managed by a general contracting company The Mortgage Group (TMG). Like the general contracting company mentioned earlier, TMG is doing next to nothing to see the safety of the workers on site. One policy that was implemented was limiting the number of people on a hoist at one time. At the same time, no additional sanitary station was set up, leaving only one running water and soap station for workers to wash their hands. However, the primary focus of the workers’ anger is actually the weak response of the IBEW union leaders. The employee goes on to say:
“TMG and Ozz aside, the real target of my anger is my union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the premier of Ontario, Doug Ford. To the IBEW: why have you not taken a stronger stance about the safety of our brothers and sisters? Other labour unions have come out saying that large sites should be shut down – and they’re right! Why are you playing along with the likes of Ford, who clearly doesn’t give two shits about us? Shame!’
Workers’ rights are an afterthought for the bosses
Many workers are putting themselves at risk to provide services that are in fact essential, such as groceries, medical supplies and medicines. But corporations like Shoppers Drug Mart are using any opportunity to leverage their essential services, such as pharmacies, to force other employees to work. Although Shoppers Drug Mart did provide their employees a $2 wage increase, little has been said about their forcing employees in the cosmetic department to work and promoting an unsafe environment. The cosmetic staff cannot provide their usual services. Instead, they spend their entire day cleaning surfaces with bleach solution that hurts their lungs. To one Shoppers Drug Mart employee, it is clear why they are still there: it is to ensure that the luxury goods that are stocked are not stolen! But little of this comes as a surprise because the unsafe work culture has always been present.
“Until this crisis they have discouraged calling in sick- during the holidays, I watched women run to the bathroom to vomit, and then return to help customers. Cosmetics employees are expected to come in no matter what. If you can’t find someone to cover your shift, calling in sick will put a target on your back. I can confidently say the virus will spread rapidly under this policy. I myself work in a large store. Our cosmetics department has over 10 women. Every time we are forced to come to work we are risking pharmacists who dispense medication, cashiers who help senior citizens, and merchandisers who keep the toilet paper stocked. We are not essential. If the company insists on monitoring the department, a single security guard could be hired. Cosmetics itself does not need to be open, let alone fully staffed. To keep it open is another example of a company putting profit not just before people, but before any kind of empathy or common sense.”
It is clear that corporations that provide essential services have been dragging their feet when it comes to implementing safety measures for their workers. At every step of the way profit and the “bottom line” are prioritized.
This was the case for Sobeys management. According to one Sobeys employee, every safety measure that has been implemented by management was done indecisively and hesitantly, which unnecessarily caused risk to employees and customers. Initially during the COVID-19 outbreak, the management told employees not to wear gloves, a policy which was eventually overturned. One location did not implement social distancing practices for customers until recently. Employees were still exchanging dirty cash without plexiglass shields being put in place.
As a “thank you” to workers, Sobeys management eventually put in place a “Hero Pay Program”. What did this mean for employees?
“Employees will get $50. Plus, an increase of $2.00 extra per hr only on the hrs worked after 20 … Very few work past 20. The managers and department managers will receive $500.00 a week extra in hero pay. They did not try to hide the fact that our health is 10 times less important than theirs.”
The reality under capitalism is that for most corporations it is still business as usual. No considerations are taken for working people. This fact is expressed by one employee from National Steel Car in Hamilton.
“These guys are sending workers in, many who (including my friend) have to take public transit, maybe one of the most dangerous ways to travel currently. But the inadequate measures that the government and business have taken to provide assurance that food and rent will be taken care of for workers have left people despondent and desperate enough to keep going in”
Like the private corporations, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) appears to be no different when it comes to workers’ safety. Since the beginning of the pandemic, one TTC bus operator said, management has been concerned only with “public perception”. This comes with the assumption that people who depend on public transit will no longer use it because of bad perception. Disputes started when employees wanted to wear N95 masks in order to protect themselves and others. This of course was not an option for TTC management, who went as far as telling workers “if you’re caught wearing it, you will be R.O.D (Relieved of Duties)”. According to management, wearing masks would have been in violation of their Uniform Code and the collective bargaining agreement. But they have made an exception to this whenever a Toronto sports team makes the playoff or has a big win, in which case wearing a sports team hat is considered fine by management.
After weeks of pressure from the rank-and-file workers, by way of work refusal, the TTC reluctantly gave into the demand of masks. But this only tells part of the story. Multiple battles with management ensued as the pandemic escalated. Contentious issues included booking sick days and sanitation responsibilities. The TTC has done little to proactively ensure the safety of its employees. This includes basic social distancing tactics that have been accepted in most places. Even before the pandemic, accepting fares and handing out transfers has always been a point of contention for employees. While the TTC continuously cites Toronto Public Health’s “social distancing” guidelines, they simultaneously contradict those directives by having employees accept fares and hand out transfers.
During this pandemic management has done little to nothing to assist the TTC workforce, often limiting themselves to menial tasks and cheap social distance motivation talk.
“The TTC is promoting ‘social distancing’ by way of frequent automated announcements at stations. These announcements are ‘distant’ in that they are asking passengers to ‘wait for the next vehicle, if one is full’, this followed by a rallying phrase of ‘We all have to do our part, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.’ While this announcement is asking this, the TTC isn’t doing their part to mitigate the crowding. The TTC has hundreds of supervisors and managers that could be deployed to the stations to help limit the amount of passengers boarding. Instead these supervisors are doing menial tasks, like cutting caution tape and putting it in individual bags, having ‘safety talks’ not COVID-19-related, seat belt checks at divisions where buses depart, etc, etc. Many employees are off sick or in forced isolation, employee levels are low; roughly 20% as recently cited by TTC Public Relations. Managers are walking around their side of the divisions trying to look busy or hiding in their office. Check-out time for managers has been escalated from 3pm to 2pm in most cases. During the Pan Am Games and Canada 150, it was all hands on deck. Every supervisor, manager, HR officer, anyone for that matter was assisting with crowds and logistics. That has been lost with this crisis”
These reports lift the veil of what the government response has really meant for working class people during the pandemic. The business-friendly response to COVID-19 has allowed companies to continue to put workers in harm’s way for profit, rarely taking into consideration the health and safety of the employees. Businesses have shown once again that they cannot be trusted with what is best for society!
This bus operator summarizes the TTC management response, which can easily describe any manufacturing plant, store, construction site or workplace during the pandemic.
“To sum everything up, the TTC is doing what the TTC has always done; throw service at a problem, until you can’t anymore. This was evident during the G20 when surface operation heads anticipated ‘moderate impact’ on service. It wasn’t until the police issued a directive to suspend transit into the downtown core that the TTC finally ground to a halt. During extreme weather it’s the same thing; keep sending out the vehicles until they all get stuck. A new streetcar that turned into a submarine, during a torrential downpour under the CN Bridge on King St and Atlantic, is the most recent extreme example of this.
While I’m critical of the TTC, I’m not without solutions. Democratic control of the TTC by the workers is the only solution. Every idea from the King St pilot [project] to express bus service and many subway initiatives were all talked about many years ago; at the operator lunch tables in divisions, while operators are waiting for their vehicle to arrive, within the union halls and now within social media groups. The biggest argument against workers’ control is that the workers would make decisions based on their own interests. This is actually true, workers know their job and they are also on the frontline of the decisions or indecisions, so a decision based on the workers’ interests would also benefit the public at large.”
In the coming days, rich parasitic bosses will keep their companies going, attempting to get away with murder. Their only concern is making profits. Meanwhile, it is working class people who will continue to pay for their recklessness with our lives.
Across the United States, Europe and other parts of the world, we are seeing a wave of strikes, walkouts and protests aimed at shutting down production against the bosses and their capitalist class. Canada is not far away from this wave of radicalization and fightback.
The profit motive of the bosses will continue to cost lives. Only the organized power of the working class can stop them.
As the situation unfolds, Fightback will continue to publish anonymous stories of bosses putting profits before lives. We will post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and publish more articles on our website. To send us your story, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.